6 months Earlier
“I have a surprise for you all,” I announced, setting my large tote on the desk at the front of the room. “Una sorpresa,” I added in Spanish, just to be sure they understood. I’d been working with these kids for a couple of weeks now, teaching them English as part of a volunteer program. My method was to talk to them as much as I could in English, adding in visual cues for best understanding, and occasionally repeating things in Spanish. It was the same method I’d used in all the previous villages I’d work in for the last five and a half years.
At first it was because I knew very little Spanish and literally had no other choice, but as time passed, with my total immersion into the culture and language of the country, I became more efficient in language and no longer needed an interpreter with me 24/7. I was able to communicate more effectively with the kids on my own.
The point of the program was to provide an avenue for these kids to learn English, which would not be achieved as quickly if I were to spoon feed them everything in their mother tongue. Sometimes the moments we don’t quite understand are the ones we learn from the most.
My supervisor called my method Sink or Swim English. I’d lay out my instructions in Enlgish and they would either get it, and do it – known as a swim – or stare at me blankly – sink. In the beginning stages with each group reactions leaned more toward sink, but as they grew familiar with the words, phrases and commands, they started to swim more and more.
The other technique I had discovered that produced great results was making my lessons relevant too them and their interests. That’s where my surprise comes in.
I’d been struggling to engage this new bunch of kids, unable to find a common ground with them as I had with the last few groups. It was downright frustrating, not only for me, as my teaching was pretty much pointless, but also for the kids as they got bored with my lessons. The last few days, though, as I walked from the bunkhouse to the school building and vice versa I had noticed the kids – every single one of them, regardless of age or gender – engaged in a very enthusiastic game of all in soccer in the dust bowl they call a field next to the school.
My heart soared to see them enjoying themselves so much, and that they were able to play so harmoniously as a whole group, but sank the moment I caught sight of the state of their ball. It was old and tattered. Patched up in places it where it looked to have been chewed on by a dog and quite flat. There was hardly and bounce left in it.
So yesterday afternoon, I’d driven to the nearest town and bought them a new ball in preparation of the lesson I had forming in my head. I felt sure that this was going to be the first breakthrough with this group. Maybe, just maybe, I’d found the right topic to get them all engaged.
I turned to the whiteboard behind me and wrote ‘ball’ in even, legible letters for them all to see, before reaching into my tote and pulling out the brand new soccer ball.
“Balón!” a few of them exclaimed.
“Si!” I agreed. “But in English?” I tilted my head toward the whiteboard as a hint and waited as they sounded it out, testing the new word on their tongues. “Ball,” I confirmed, once the room had erupted in exclamations of the word. “Muy bien! Very good. But what kind?”
Once again, the noise level rose as they all called out, and I smiled. We were finally engaging. While they were shouting, I turned and wrote a series of ball and soccer related words on the board in English, illustrating each to the best of my ability. Admittedly, my best was significantly below the level of recognisable drawing, so if they got what each word meant from my pictures alone, it would be a miracle.
I went through each word with them, demonstrating some, like ‘kick’, ‘throw’ and ‘roll’ and getting them to try to make their own connections based partly on knowledge that they should already have, like the parts of the body we use for each action, since we’d covered body parts within the first few lessons with them.
Afterward, I took them outside and ran them through some drills, just to make sure the words and their meanings were cemented in their heads and connected to physical actions.
“Ricky, kick to Marco,” I instructed one of the boys. He did as I said and ran to the back of the line so that the next person, a seven year old girl named Catalina, could step up ready to receive the ball from Marco.
“Marco,” I stated, making sure I had his full attention before going on. At fifteen years old, Marco was one of the eldest in the group I’d been charged with. Most of the older kids were quite cynical about how much good learning English would actually do for them, and therefore put very little effot in. Marco, on the other hand, seemed to hang on my every word, drinking it in like it was the air and water he needed to survive. He caught on much quicker than the others, and as such, I tried to challenge him wherever possible.
“Bounce the ball three times, then roll it to Catelina,” I instructed him, watching his brow furrow slightly in thought. I knew he knew most of the words I’d used, it was just a matter of him taking a moment to recall their meaning before he acted on them.
Only a few seconds passed before he bounced the ball three times and rolled it to the young girl.
“Bueno,” I praised, giving him a high five as he passed by me on his way to the back of the line.
Once they’d all done a few commands I turned them loose in the field to have a real game of soccer with the new ball as their reward for doing so well. I was encouraged to find that rather than automatically reverting back to Spanish the moment the game started they were shouting English words to each other amongst the more complicated Spanish instructions.
We were finally making headway.
The next morning, I was sitting on the edge of the school building’s shaded porch eating an apple and watching the kids play when the ball suddenly landed in my lap, causing me to fling my piece of fruit into the dirt. When I looked up from the ball Marco was jogging toward me, an apologetic look on his face. “Lo siento!” he called before adding the English equivalent. “I am sorry!”
“It’s okay,” I assured him, curving my thumb and forefinger into the universal sign for okay. “It was an accident.”
His brow furrowed in confusion only briefly. We hadn’t covered ‘accident’ in our lessons yet, but the words were similar enough in both languages that he worked it out on his own.
“Pasar?” he asked, gesturing for me to pass the ball. I hugged it to my chest and shook my head no. “Estefania!” he complained. “Pasar el balón!”
Again, I shook my head, not willing to relinquish the ball without something in return. In this case, I wanted him to use the English words he’d learned so well the day before. I just wasn’t going to tell him that. He’d work it out soon enough.
My refusal to give Marco the ball caught the attention of the other children, since their game had been halted, and they came swarming over.
“Qué pasa?” Matheus, the eldest, demanded, hands on hips as he stared between Marco and myself.
Marco explained – in Spanish – that I wouldn’t give him the ball, which of course prompted an uproar from the rest. My name was shouted at me and demands and complaints whined amid it, but I held tight to the ball.
Eventually, Sofia, a shy and quiet thirteen year old, stepped right up in front of me and asked, “Pass the ball, Estefania?”
I smiled, nodded, and handed her the ball, satisfied when the other began to complain at her instead.
Sofia just shook her head and said, “En inglés, idiotas.” And they all groaned.
Somehow they then coaxed me into joining the game. I had no hope in keeping up with them, especially the older boys as they did their complicated turns and passes, but it was enjoyable none the less. Even if I was sweat soaked thirty seconds in.
I was calling to one of my team mates to go left, switching between English and Spanish to make sure they understood and also providing extra learning experience for them, when I suddenly felt like I was being watched. Scanning the area around the field, I couldn’t see anyone, but that did nothing to calm the nerves that had begun flitting when I felt the slight chill down my spine. My instincts were hardly ever wrong, so if I thought someone was watching me, they probably were. The question was, why?
“Estefania!” Maria, another of the girls, called in a disappointed tone. I glanced around to find a couple of the boys doing a victory dance. Apparently, while I’d been distracted, they had dashed past me and scored a goal. I don’t know why Maria was so disappointed with me, since I probably wouldn’t have been able to stop it from happening even if I had been paying attention.
I was in town with a fellow volunteer, enjoying some down time before we had to get back to work tomorrow, when the nagging, almost tingling sensation returned to the back of my neck. Just over a week had passed since the soccer game and the feeling of being watched I’d experienced then. When I’d gone a few days without the awareness I’d figured my senses were out of whack for whatever reason. But now it was back.
Unwilling to just shrug it off and keep going about my day – I’d been caught in some pretty horrendous situations by ignoring my intuition – I pulled my companion out of the foot traffic on the sidewalk and up against the wall of the nearest building. She looked at me, alarmed, but said nothing as I critically scanned my surroundings for the second time in a fortnight. It seemed strange that I’d managed to go five years without a suspicious episode, and now I’d had two spaced so closely together.
Clearly someone had taken a sudden interest in me and wasn’t willing to come over and introduce themselves.
I dragged my gaze slowly over the people, scrutinising faces.
“Um, Steph?” my friend prompted. “Is everything okay?”
“I feel like I’m being watched,” I explained. “I’m trying to see who it is.”
She nodded and looked quickly around. “I think it might be those men over there,” she said after a moment.
I followed her pointing finger across the street to a group of four men crowded just outside the general store. They were all large, muscled, and so covered in dirt that I couldn’t tell what colour their clothes were. It didn’t really matter, though, because I recognised the immense size of one of the men in particular the moment I clapped eyes on him. He stood at least half a head above the rest, was bald headed, and dark skinned.
Urging my friend to stay where she was or continue on to the cafe we’d been headed for, I quickly and determinedly crossed the street. As I approached the group, Tank’s eyes narrowed, like he was trying to see through me, rather than just see me. Maybe he was still trying to decide if he knew me. I couldn’t really blame him; I’d changed a fair bit in the last five years. Some days I didn’t even recognise myself in the mirror.
“Hay algún problema?” I questioned when he was within earshot. I chose to speak in Spanish to deliberately throw him off, since he was obviously still trying to work me out.
“Lo siento,” he responded automatically, before explaining that he thought he knew me.
I grinned at him and his slightly halting use of Spanish. There was a time when he seemed – to me, at least – to be fluent in the language. Now I realised that he was on the cusp of fluidity, but probably didn’t get enough practice to take it up a notch.
With a roll of my eyes I switched back to English to put an end to my own suffering. “Stephanie Plum,” I said with confidence, my grin still in place. “I believe we’ve met before?”
His eyes widened briefly before scrutinising my appearance even harder. “Steph?” he asked. “Is that really you?”
“In the flesh,” I confirmed. “What are you doing here?”
“Government mission,” he said, rather off hand, like it didn’t matter. “We’re waiting for pick up. Just finished this morning. Enough about me. What are you doing here? What happened to your eyes? Your hair? When did you learn Spanish?”
I shook my head at the rapid fire questions from the man I’d always known as the quiet one. “Volunteering. Coloured contacts. Cut it off. Slowly over the course of my first year down here,” I listed the answers to his questions in turn. He looked disappointed in my short answers, so I suggested, “I could tell you all about it over lunch, if you like. That’ll give you time to get cleaned up and me time to blow off my friend.”
“I’ll meet you back here in an hour and a half,” Tank conceded, though he made no move to leave; just stood there staring at me.
“What?” I demanded, suddenly feeling self conscious.
“Nothing,” he said softly, a hint of a smile forming around his eyes. “You look good.”